Thursday, July 24, 2008

Highlights of Beijing (to-date)

So, rather than bore you with long-winded descriptions of each place, I'm going to keep y'all updated by giving out a list of the sites I've visited and include a note on each. And lots of pictures. Because a picture is worth a thousand words and no one actually wants to read 10,000 of those, right?

I was able to visit about half of these places courtesy of BOCOG (the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games), who took us News Service worker on a three-day tour of the best Beijing had to offer. So, I have to be eternally thankful to them, even if our first stop was kinda poopy.

On to the sites! As always, I've linked to more shots on Flickr from the entry.

Qinghe Water Reclamation Plant - this is, you guessed it, a waste water treatment plant. Or, more specifically, they clean sewage so the water can be used in car washes, to provide irrigation and the like (thankfully, not drink). The city is definitely proud of this plant and the 12 others just like them it built for the Olympics. There were a plethora of jokes about this visit, but I can't share any of them in mixed company.

Xiang Tang New Culture Village - We visited "the most beautiful village in China," which is a government sanctioned/subsidized/supported/built "village" in Beijing. I'd liken it to something akin to visiting Disneyworld or the City of the Future at the World's Fair. It was eeiry, actually... there a ton of new buildings, but very few are inhabited. It's a mish-mash of old style courtyard homes and Western condos. At the center is an arts center that caters to a resident retirement community. They sang us a song about how happy they were to live in a place with clear skies and fresh mountain air (the smog was so thick that day that we couldn't see the actual mountains that were a 1/2 mile away, but they assured us that they were there). Honestly, I'm not really sure even now what to think about this place. It's either a project to try and reclaim some of China's lost history or one giant PR scam... neither would surprise me.

Peking Duck - let me say, if you had to have a last meal and picked this, you couldn't be too wrong. My goodness, is it ever delicous. Perfect with a Tsingtao.

Great Wall, Badaling - Lonely Planet say thus about Badaling: "The surrounding scenery is raw and impressive and this is the place to come see the wall snaking off into the distance over the undulating hills. Also come here for guard rails, souvenier stalls, a fairground feel and the companionship of sqauds of tourists surging over the ramparts. If you time your visit to coincide with a summer weekend, you won't be able to move against the wall of humanity on the battlements." I have to say, the book couldn't have summed it up better. It took us a full hour of waiting, jammed against Chinese tourists, to get from the ticket booth to the top of the actual wall. Part of it had to do with Felipe Calderon (Mexico's president), who decided to visit the wall on the same day and they closed off sections for him, but part of it was Badaling's natural "tourist charms." I will definitely be re-visting the Great Wall, but not at Badaling. Having said that, it might be the coolest thing I've done in Beijing. Climbing over one of the 7 wonders of the world (that's 2,000 years old) cannot be underestimated.

The Ming Tombs - built during the 1500's during the Ming dynasty, these tombs rival those of Egypt's Pharoahs in splendor and oppulence. There are 13 of them, but only three are open to the public. In essence, they are underground tombs surrounded by lush gardens of cypress and impressive temples. The best part of the visit, however, wasn't the tomb itself. Rather, it was the perfectly clear sky that gave us tremendous views of the rocky mountains just north of Beijing. A landscape fit for an emperor's resting place.

The New Summer Palace - Originally named "Qingyi Yuan" or Garden of Clear Ripples, the Summer Place was built in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong (Qin dynasty) to celebrate his mother's birthday. Um, wow. Let's just say the dude A) really liked his mom and B) had lots of time on his hands. Since then, it's been destroyed twice (by invading Anglo forces, as the signs around the park constantly remind you), but has been open for nearly 100 years as a public park. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site and full of China's signature brillantly painted temples. The park's two most distinguishing features - a lake and a steep hill - are both manmade. The emperor wanted a lake, there wasn't one there, so slaves dug one. He then also had a hill to build imposing Tower of Buddhist Incense. It's good to be king.

The Old Summer Palace - Anglo-French forces destroyed this one (by fire) in 1860 and it hasn't been rebuilt. That's really all I know about it. It's really sad to see, actually, because it would have been quite impressive... it was inspired by French architecture and would have resembled Versailles, to a certain degree. There was a cool maze, though.

The Forbidden City - This wasn't part of the BOCOG tour, so I went there on my own with a few friends. It's pretty neat to wander around the grounds where the seat of China's power had been for five centuries. During that time, just your Average Joe-types like me wouldn't have been allowed in. It was a place of mystery, excess and politics (kind of like our Congress, ha). Actually, if I had been allowed inside, I'd have to pay with my, um, family jewels, as the only average males let in were the eunuchs who watched over the 3,000+ concubines and supervised their quarters. Pretty crazy...

Tien'anmen Square - did you know it's the largest public square in the world? I didn't. It's massive - took an hour to walk around it. I'd have to say that it was certainly Communist-inspired. The buildings surrounding it all have squared, blocky edifices and, of course, there's Mao's every present pus peering over it all. Definitely a must-see, although it's tough to get pictures to come out with all of the cars and people getting in the way.

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